by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Roma, or Romani, people may be among the least-known and understood of ethnic groups in American history. Generally agreed to have migrated from India westward, including in many parts of Europe, these people, commonly called “Gypsies,” were treated with great suspicion in virtually every country in which they traveled and settled.
As the United States experienced massive waves of migration from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries before the immigration laws and quotas were enacted in the mid-1920s, groups of the Romani were found throughout the country. Most lived a nomadic life outside of mainstream American society and, as in Europe, were often viewed as thieves, con artists and bilkers and the term “gypped” became part of the language.
Most Roma lived in the east and midwest, but with the increasing affordability and use of the car, some of them were able to migrate west, belying the image of the horse-drawn wagon that was maintained in the popular imagination. In Los Angeles, opposing groups of the Romani made news in October 1924 with a conflict over a teenage girl and tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s collection concerns the issue.
The two factions were staying, as was often the case for the Roma in tent camps, with one, led by the Adams family, near Whittier, though a precise location was not given in media accounts found for this post. The other group, headed by Frank Mitchell, was ensconced at the Shadybrook Auto Camp on Mission Road where North Broadway ends at the northern reaches of Lincoln Heights.
Newspapers like the Los Angeles Express and Los Angeles Record were matter-of-fact in their coverage of the dispute, but the Los Angeles Times took full opportunity to play up the “gypsies” and their warring factions with extensive coverage and romanticizing. The Express, in its edition of 14 October, kept its account short, noting that Los Angeles Police Department officers from the Lincoln Heights station “are exercising a mandate over the gypsy camps . . . while the wandering nomads seek to apply tribal rules and customs” in the wrangling over with which group 17-year old Rosie Mitchell was to reside.
Frank Mitchell claimed his daughter was kidnapped a year prior “and he found her recently living with the gypsy tribe near Whittier, where she was much in demand as a fortune teller.” Apparently, she was retrieved by her father, taken by the Adams contingent led by Miller Adams, who claimed he paid for her (as was, apparently, a custom) and again “rescued by her father and brother . . . aided by the police.” With the Adams group back in Los Angeles, the paper continued, “the police stand guard to keep the peace [while] the tribal chiefs are parleying to determine to whom the girl belongs.”
The Record, meanwhile, devoted some ink to the conflict, but not with much detail. In its 16 October issue, for example, it discussed the back-and-forth retrievals of young Rosie, adding that Frank Mitchell threatened to shoot anyone from the Adams association who approached her, while noting that “his daughter’s delicate condition nullifies the contract” with Miller Adams, said to be “the girl’s betrayer.”
In the same day’s Express, the coverage was largely the same, though the paper observed that Frank Mitchell was purportedly “heir-apparent to the Romany kingdom in the United States” to “Porrato Tino Bimbo, king of all the gypsies.” It added that Mitchell warned Adams that he would “call in the hated police” if the attempts to steal Rosie back continued. On the 18th, the Record reported that a third Adams attempt was made and rebuffed “in a hard fought fistic encounter. Yet, when Adams deferred to “a tribal council,” that body decided in his favor, leading Mitchell to spurn the decision and keep Rosie under his authority. The paper added that Lincoln Heights officers “are getting impatient . . . and threaten to evict both the Romany Argyves [Argives] and Trojans, or send them to jail on vagrancy charges.
The Times, however, gave far more space to the conflict and to general discussions of the Roma and offered prosy explanations and descriptions of the incident and the people, as well as dramatic drawings of Rosie and the camp. On the 14th, in its coverage of the decision to employ a tribal council, the paper talked about the convening of the “gypsy court” under police supervision to determine the fate of the “lovely Romany seeress” who was also denoted a “princess” and “god-daughter of the late gypsy ruler, Queen Rose.”
It was stated that Frank Mitchell traveled throughout the West Coast and Canada searching for Rosie, but that she slipped away from the Whittier camp and made it to Lincoln Heights, only to have the Adamses show up in force and overpower the Mitchells to retrieve her. It was then that the Mitchells, accompanied by police officers, traveled to Whittier and used guns to hold off any attempt by the Adamses to intervene. Another detail was that the Lincoln Heights camp was split, with some related to the Whittier contingent, leading the Mitchells to keep to themselves in a corner of Shadybrook.
When Eulina, Rosie’s sister, stood by her, it was averred that older Romani women mocked her and the former “a tigress type of gypsy beauty, looked at them with silent scorn but seemingly ready to leap at their throats.” As the two factions argued in the Mitchell tent, placed along a creek under some willow trees, “Rosie, with her Madonna face, sat near by sewing brightly colored silks together, making an apron.” She remained silent, though she displayed “sad eyes” and “had no share in the making of her destiny.” She reportedly told the paper that, when the brouhaha was ended, she would marry a gypsy man so her child would not be born out of wedlock, but that such a union would be out of Roma tradition, not love, because “she was a gypsy girl, subject to the decisions of the men who were her masters.” Someday, the piece concluded, she might achieve happiness.
On the 15th, the Times went to the step of reprinting statements in a vernacular so that, one Mitchell member, reportedly stated “the trouble be settled in tribal court mebbe t’morrow, mebbe nex wick—mebbe Rosie go back, mebbe not . . . you come back nex week, you fin’ out all about it.” Referring to a “tribal pow-wow” as if the Romani were Plains Indians, the paper quoted Frank Mitchell as expostulating “I theenk I go to State court and ask $4 a wick for time Rosie was away!” The account diverted to the description of “a swarthy woman [who] scraped together some wood coals and set a gridiron over them” to make food while “catching up a wailing child [and] set it to suckling” while she worked and offered her opinion that Frank Mitchell “must pay back her husband tree or four thousand dollar husband pay the father for Rosie . . . He not da moaney.”
Four days later, Ben A. Markson of the Times offered a lengthy exposition of the Roma titled “Glamour Clings to Gypsies Despite Era of Motor Car” with the subheading of “Picturesque People Hold Fast to Traditions of Many Centuries in Habits and Philosophy.” He began his essay with the statement that “gypsies have changed somewhat with the times, but there is no loss of the glamour that is associated with the strange, roving, dark-eyed race that clings to the wooded earth for a couch with the sky for a canopy.” He talked of women telling fortunes as “glib lies” while being greatly superstitious and that “the little known, much suspected nomads” were able to “fold up their tents more quickly than any Arab between Bosra [Basta] and Harara.”
What allowed for the rapid spread of the Roma, of course, was the advent of the auto, replacing the wagon most people who knew of the Romani associated with them. Markson invited the reader to “take a leap from the roaring asphalt ledge of Mission Road, where North Broadway ends if you crave a spectacle of modern Gypsyland.” He painted a picture in which “at dusk the sky will lower a curtain of lilac haze and little leaping red flames will send a warm sheen over the tents of the gypsy camp.”
Markson then wrote of “the witch-like grand dame of all gypsies, clad in billowing, faded scarlet” and “reviling a young gypsy woman, who stares at her with sullen, scornful eyes.” Women, he continued, provided much of the funds for the Roma through their fortune telling As for the men, he offered that the shrewd horse traders of tradition were replaced in like ability by modern Romani men who drove fine cars because “they can trade one good car for two better ones and make you throw in a motorcycle, or at least a pair of roller skates, for good measure.”
Amid all of the romantic flavorings, the author did note that “gypsy life has its elements of tragedy and heartbreak, necessarily, since it so replete with romance and adventure,” though there was no expansion of these thoughts. Instead Markson turned to the “King Frank Mitchell” and his family, with the added claim that his brother, Tino Bimbo, currently in a camp outside of Chicago, “is said to be the reigning king of all the gypsies in the United States, in South America, and in some of the European countries” and received financial tribute from his subjects, a fortune awaiting Frank, purportedly, after the porrato, or king, died.
As to Rosie, Markson wrote that “her luminous brown eyes are very sad” but she had “a ready smile, tremulous, it is true, but brave” as it “combats the occasional disconsolate droop of her head.” Her brother George, meanwhile, was “alert, [and] passably dressed” while “he is dark-skinned of the Serbian type, with a slow, pleasant smile.” Yet, there was a “flash in his black eyes” a bearing in his determined chin and the “swing of his shoulders” that suggested “the possession of demon qualities should he be aroused or at bay.” As for Frank, he told Markson that he allowed Rosie to go work with the Adams faction a year prior, but they absconded with her until recent events described above.
Despite the tribal council ruling, Frank determined to keep Rosie with him until the winter was over and they would return to Chicago and Tino Bimbo. George reportedly told Markson that the Adamses and others opposing the Mitchells were afraid of the purported king being told of the conflict as “he will come here with many people and punish those who fight us [note that less vernacular was shown here].” The journalist was told that the Mitchells migrated from Serbia in 1902, while most of the Roma at Shadybrook hailed from Argentina. Money was made by men, George added, with concession stands at carnivals and circuses and fixing cars, as well as fortune telling by the women.
As for Rosie, she told Markson “I was born gypsy, will die gypsy. The way I live, the way I dress, are what I know . . . I like to go from place to place outdoors, but sometimes I get very tired.” She added, “I don’t like to dance, don’t like to sing much, like Americans.” She preferred to sew, making items that were “out of colors like the sky and the sun and the trees” but “I can tell good fortune and give good luck.” When she mentioned her troubles, Markson asked if she cried over his problems and she retorted “No—what good to cry? It don’t make better to cry.”
As to “King Mitchell” and his views, he was quoted as saying “A man a fool to live other way than this. Here every man master of his own tent. Fresh air, much to eat, much sunshine. Give a man a big chest and feel good. Not worry very much. Live out in woods and easy to feel happy. Man was born to live free outside, not shut in walls and work like damn fool and get sick.” Markson noted that “the gypsies are a driven people throughout the world. No matter where they go there are harsh hands lifted against them, bidding them be on their way.” After adding that they produced nothing, he continued that “they are little understood, and are credited by the majority of mankind with being dishonest. They are mysterious and clannish and far from immaculate.”
The writer concluded that “approached in the right conscience,” the Roma were quite friendly, but “the gypsy . . . is a peculiar creature . . . his mission is new vistas, new sunsets, a closer ear to the song that is sung afar off.” The wagon was jettisoned for the car as the nomads traveled from camp to camp where “he will sleep warmly and happily where the breeze breathes gently upon the embers of the wood fire before his tent, no matter where that may be.”
Within a week, those reveries were no longer to take place at Shadybrook, as Mitchell and the other Romani were evicted and headed south to Hynes, now Paramount. After one night, however, “the promptings of sheriffs, neighbors and police” led to another forced removal.” It may be that there were gypsies at that location who came up to Lincoln Heights to be “intermediaries” in the internecine Roma quarrel.
From there, the whereabouts of the Mitchells are elusive, though trying to identify a Frank Mitchell or a Rosie Mitchell can be challenging because there were Roma of that name found over decades and in varied parts of the United States. In November 1919, however, an Omaha newspaper reported on and published a photo of 12-year old Rosie Mitchell with another young Romani girl who were allegedly purchased as future brides from her father, Frank, and the other girl’s brother the prior spring for $3,300 and taken from the Johnstown, Pennsylvania to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where the girls were taken by authorities and held.
In April 1923, a portrait of a 16-year old Rosie Mitchell, with dark eyes, a long oval face, and lengthy braids on each side of her head, was published in a newspaper in Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, when the young Roma woman was under arrest for stealing $200 from a bank. She was released on $1,500 bail and then skipped town, prompting a bench warrant. Perhaps this was the Rosie who wound up in Los Angeles the following year, if the account of her being allowed by Frank for the Adams clan was true.
There were, however, Rosie Mitchells of unstated ages in Oakland in 1918, Charlotte, North Carolina in 1919, Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1920, Hazleton, Pennsylvania in 1921, and Washington, D.C. in August 1924, so it can be hard to document the Rosie who was the object of the factional crisis in Los Angeles. In April 1925, the Palm Beach [Florida] Post reported that Mary Mitchell of Macon, Georgia, said to speak in English, Italian and Spanish and to have been born from an Italian father in Brazil, was searching for her daughter Rosie, kidnapped six years prior from Pittsburgh—this seeming to correspond with the Rosie sold from Johnstown and taken to Iowa in March 1919.
Moreover, Mary Mitchell claimed that “a slimmy Rooshian [slimy Russian]” named Frank took her daughter, saying “she got los’ from me at beeg fair and thees Frank he grab her by arm and tell her go weeth heem. He say her papa and he are relations. Then he take her away in big car. Me no see her since. She 14 then.” As noted above, the Rosie found in Iowa in 1919 was twelve, so it is possible this is a different Rosie and Frank, though it was claimed that Mary’s daughter and her alleged kidnapper were in Florida at the time the article appeared. Rosie Mitchells were reported throughout the country from the early 1930s through the mid-1950s and who knows if any of them were the one in Los Angeles in 1924.
There are still many Roma in the United States today and there is a fascinating 2017 article from the Daily Beast about how some of them are advocating for a different view of the Romani than the stereotypes that have existed in years past. The photo shows the Romani encampment at the Shadybrook camp’s bucolic setting from the hills to the east, including several tents, automobiles and about a dozen persons, including one boy waving at the camera. The caption on the reverse and dated 14 October 1924 briefly discussed the “gypsy court” presiding over the Rosie Mitchell matter. The artifact is a fascinating and rare one concerning the presence of the Roma in Los Angeles nearly a century ago.